The Black Tavern (HK 1972)

Rating: ***
Review Date: 5/20/19
Cast: Shih Szu, Kang Hua, Ku Feng, Dean Shek, Wu Ma

"They are Tiger, Leopard, and Bear. Also known as the Three Headed Cobra."

A wandering beggar (Dean Shek) spreads rumors of a rich traveller heading towards a remote inn, which catches the attention of several criminal parties. The inn becomes a blood-stained battlefield as all of the greedy bandits fight for supremacy while waiting for their target to arrive. Things take an interesting turn when he finally shows up, and the thieves discover they've been tricked. Naturally, more bloodshed follows until all of the bad guys are dead or locked away.

This semi-sequel to "The Lady Hermit" (1971) gives Shih Szu star billing, even though she doesn't show up until the last twenty minutes of the film. When she finally appears, the villain cries out "It's the lady hermit!", to which she responds, "No, I'm her daughter!" The fight scenes are quite enjoyable, although glaringly obvious undercranking spoils some of the fun. Shih Szu is delightful and puts up a good fight towards the end, but the film really belongs to the charismatic Kang Hua and the devious Ku Feng. The action is gruesome and bloody, and highlighted by severed limbs, torso piercing, and several impressive decapitations.

The production is laughably overstuffed with Hong Kong movie clichés, which can make it tiresome to watch. There's the annoying singing beggar, the remote inn run by thieves, human meat buns, a corpse driver (Wu Ma), fighting zombies, an animal-themed fighting clan, a whip master, a charming heroic swordsman, secret notes, shifty glances, doomed romance, and betrayal and deceit around every corner. Dean Shek made an entire career out of playing sneering toadies and annoying beggars, and he's a constant nuisance throughout the film. But he must have resonated with audiences at the time, since he played this role over and over. It's as if the studio heads at Shaw Brothers were like "Hey, you know what every good film needs? An annoying beggar. Get Dean on the phone." It's a good looking production for the most part, and what sets it apart from so many other genre films is that all of the exterior shots feature falling snow. It's a nice visual touch that gives the film a cold and harsh ambience. It also creates great contrast with the characters' colorful costumes and the blood that is spilt. Swordplay fans will probably enjoy it, while Shih Szu fans may be let down by her disappointing lack of screen time.